Monday, July 20, 2009

Collectors and Collections

A recent article about baby boomers who grew up playing with certain toys and now as adults feel entitled to expensive toys of a similar nature reminded me of the sad demise of each generation’s hobbies. Just as today’s middle-agers collected Star Trek toys as kids, so today’s nonagenarians as children collected first day airmail covers from all over the world. Back then, the airlines were beginning to establish the routes that exist today, and sometimes, such flights were fraught with dangers. Some of my mom’s airmail covers have scorch marks because the plane went down and most of the mail on it burned.

At one time, about when my mother was middle-aged, those airmail covers were worth a lot of money. The kids who had collected them or yearned for them were middle-aged themselves, and some of them had money to buy their childhood desires at last. I remember my mother selling a few Graf Zeppelin first day covers for hundreds of dollars. And I remember how angry she was that she needed the money and had to break up her collection. Now, at nearly 95, she is too far gone into the twilight of dementia to care. But the people who might have bought the rest of her collection with great enthusiasm are mostly dead. Or at the disposal point in their own lives.

Which got me thinking about my comic books. When people come to my house and see them, they always comment on how valuable my comics must be. I put them straight: I don’t have old Marvel comics. I have Superman DC comics, and most of them are in so-so shape. I read them over and over, or I bought them from other kids, or they were subscription copies that were mailed folded. In other words, these comics are pretty near worthless as collectibles. The good thing about it is that I can enjoy them with a clear conscience instead of feeling that I ought to sell them for big bucks right now.

My mother, who did not like parting with her Graf Zeppelin covers, did not sell her collection when it was worth the most money. She loved her collection and did not want to sell it for ten cents on the dollar to a dealer. And back then, that would have been her most likely option. Now, despite eBay, the value of airmail covers and stamps in general has plummeted. EBay and other online options make it easy for buyers to find sellers and for sellers to compete with each other. This forces prices down if there is more supply than demand. You can buy dozens of such covers for under $100, easily. And stamps, too. And old paper money. And old coins not made of precious metals.

In other words, collectibles have a bust and boom cycle based largely on who cares about them. True, some kids who have seen the recent Spider-Man movies might become deep fans and want the first issue of the comic in which he originally appeared, Amazing Fantasy 15. That comic, which sold on newsstands in 1962 for twelve cents, is currently worth many thousands of dollars. But the majority of the fans who care about that specific comic and want to own it are the ones who were kids when it came out, and who are nearing or at retirement age now. And most of them can only afford to buy an expensive comic (between $500 and $250,000 depending on condition) while they are still working.

So...what does this mean for you and your collectibles? Probably the same thing: that your generation will always value them, but once your generation starts retiring or dying off, the value will plummet because the demand versus the supply will slacken. If you want to get the most money from your collectibles, you have to sell them while they are still valuable.

Yes, it is true that some items will still have residual value as rarities, but remember that online auctions make rarity less likely. Any mass-produced collectible could be competing with thousands more just like it. I once knew a girl who kept the historic issue of Sports Illustrated that had Sammy Sosa on the cover because he broke the record for home runs. But millions of copies were printed, and millions of people kept that issue, thus making the eventual value of it very low indeed. If there are many sellers, it becomes a buyer’s market and prices go down.

There is a time in everyone’s life when they acquire, and rightly so. And there is a time when they should be letting go of things. If you have a large collection of Star Trek or Star Wars memorabilia, this could be the right time to sell most of it. And by the way, don’t be swayed by dealers who want you to part with whole sets. Keep and display just one representative item if that’s what you want to do. But don’t imagine that your collection will send your children to college, because it won’t. Most collections are of items that were produced in the millions. China and silver, too, as so many people have discovered, although with precious metals there is always the option of selling them by weight, with no regard to the artistry of the piece itself. Original works of art are a different story, since they are unique, but they too suffer the vagaries of fashion. If the artist or style of art is hot, you may get an enormous price for yours. If not, the final figure might be disappointing.

Another sad fact about selling collectibles is that unless you personally have the time and energy to sell your collectibles on an auction site, you will only receive the wholesale, dealer’s price for them. Depending on the market, that price could be as little as 10% of the current retail price. Yes, only 10%. If dealers in your kind of collectible all offer you around the same percentage, you know you won’t get a better cut no matter how many more dealers you contact. For many collectibles, 25-33% of the current retail value is considered very good. The cut is different with auction houses, but the principle is the same. The moment you decide not to be the retailer yourself, you lose the majority of the profit on the item because you have to assign it to the middleman who actually makes the sale.

People who resell their used books that are not collectibles already know this. The resale prices they get are extremely low. For a book that originally cost $5.99 at a bookstore, and might have been discounted 10% but then been subject to sales tax, the 17 cents a used bookstore will offer for it is about 3% of the original cost. Three percent! It might make more sense to give the book to a charity and claim the thrift store price as a tax deduction. It is bound to be higher than 17 cents per book. Can you do better on an auction site trying to sell a mass-produced book? No, not if you take into account your time and trouble to market each one individually.

Am I back to exploding the eBay myth? Yes. Although I know people who make good money selling collectibles on this or other auction sites, they are retired and have no other responsibilities. And eBay’s new rules have sent some of them scurrying to collectibles shows to sell their items directly to the public. But that’s a major devotion of time and personal effort. If the object is to get cash no matter how much time it takes, fine. But for most of us, that is not the preferred situation.

Much as we love our possessions, eventually, they must all be disposed of. The ideal is that they go to good homes, to people who will cherish them, either relatives or friends, or even strangers. The next best scenario is that they sell for huge prices, thus justifying the collector’s effort in originally obtaining and then storing them carefully for many years. But the sad reality for most of us is that the items we or our relatives prized simply go to the first dealer who offers a fair price. Or to the junk dealer. Or to the dumpster, if their value is not recognized or has been lost to the vagaries of time. This is what makes the television show, Antiques Roadshow so interesting. At any moment, some odd item that has been taking up space in an attic will be identified as worth a lot of money. Which the owner will not be able to sell it for, alas.

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